Monday, 30 November 2009

ADVERT


Received my copy of this book in the mail on Saturday and all I can do is urge you to go out and buy it. The Paul Lester piece is maybe the best thing he's ever written and the Penman coda is, to put it mildly, a major event; the kind of writing which made me want to start writing in the first place. Lots of emotional and theoretical fireworks going on and my contribution is nicely placed at Chapter 6 like a Christine McVie calming the house down in the midst of multiple Buckinghams and Nickses. You'll be pleased to hear that most of the contributors, myself included. will have their own books coming out in the course of next year, but in the meantime this is an ideal Christmas present for those wondering what happened to decent printed music writing in the last ten years.

Monday, 16 November 2009

To Listen Is To Feel: GLENN GOULD: The Latecomers



In order to talk about the central, it is necessary to get out of it to the outside.

The other afternoon I went to the ICA to see/hear a presentation by Mark Fisher (aka k-punk) - he was inaugurating the Deep Listening Club (as part of Calling Out Of Context), a rough group of listeners who will gather now and then to listen in near darkness to sound pieces, albums, etc. It happened in a white room with gray cloth-covered canvases here and there; even if the lights were on, there wouldn't be too much to distract the eye from the ear's work. I use the word work very deliberately, as we were not there to just hear what was coming out of the two speakers, but to listen.

What we gathered to hear was a sound collage by Glenn Gould called The Latecomers (1969), a documentary of sorts about life in Newfoundland, Canada. I don't know if I was the only person in the room to have ever lived in Canada, but the show felt intimate to me in so many ways (and I haven't even been to Newfoundland)! As the piece continued and gathered strength, multiplied layers, I really felt as if I knew these people, smelt the sea air, felt the constant play of surf on the shore, experienced their rural lives and awkward acceptance of change since they had joined Confederation in 1949. As goes Newfoundland, Gould says, so then goes the rest of Canada. Solitude is solitude of the mind, eventually, against the government and the natural elements. (The general audience at the ICA probably didn't know this, but The Latecomers was broadcast in November of '69, just two years after the general centennial celebrations, forever associated with this great song and Expo '67 in Montreal; a kind of Canadian cool was being developed as well, by Gould, by Marshall McLuhan and by future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.)

Fisher introduced the idea of how odd and discomforting and intimate listening to something in tandem with strangers can be (and is); people gather regularly to watch things and attend museums; why not gather to listen to things as well? As someone who was taught music appreciation at a rather young age (even before I officially was taught to sit & be quiet and listen to music, my father was teaching me how to do this by example - he never lectured me that much, trusting I would find my way, memorize songs, become familiar with instruments, etc.), this didn't seem quite as odd as it may have been to others. It's hard to know, as after Gould's piece was over no one said what I expected - that they had not had this kind of experience since they were kids in music class, or perhaps just in the backseat of their parents' car, eyes closed, radio on, listening...

No, the talk was about how this sort of thing - gathered adults in a place to listen intently to something - had happened before (the North in the first half of the last century) and there was some comment in general about the structure of the piece and its actual produced qualities. But no one took the piece in and felt it hit them; or if they did, they didn't speak up. When Gould played back his first piece of this trilogy, The Idea of North, to a friend of his, she listened for a few minutes and then started to cry, and Gould was very touched and pleased with her reaction - in some ways I would guess that she understood his message, what was underneath it, and was less concerned with the technicalities of the piece.

The Latecomers takes you into the tough, isolated and foggy world of Newfoundland and gives you back, oddly, a version of yourself, particularly if you are a creative person on the outside (even in super-central London, a mere half mile from Buckingham Palace itself). It isn't necessarily tear-jerking, but the listeners that surrounded me were perhaps a bit too guarded in their responses (I wondered afterwards if some food & drink afterward would have loosened them up a bit) and no one who spoke seemed to take in and digest the subject matter - the perpetual Canadian/Gouldian subject matter of independence, collectivity and how to deal with technology. They are definitely autobiographical and in a way to fail to respond to The Latecomers is a failure to respond to the mind behind it as well. As the listeners are all residents on their own island that is also grappling with letting go of the past in order to get to a better (it is hoped) future, I would have thought the piece would have set up a mirror; instead I could only conclude that the blankness around me was a reflection of how either deep Gould's work went, or how maybe some people were lulled into a kind of non-observing hearing of the piece instead. I hope not; I hope that those who did attend got over the mere novelty of their being together in the first place and were able to also sense the joyful determination of the Newfoundland people, people who are defiantly independent even in the face of opposition or defeat. A collective sense of purpose is what unites them, as it should form in the Deep Listening Club.

As for me, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to the next listening session; perhaps this time it will be Scott Walker, though it may as well be Charles Spearin's The Happiness Project, a unique work also from Canada that deals with, well, happiness. (Or is that too radical for the ICA?)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Mike COTTON SOUND: Soul Serenade



On Saturday I found this compilation The Mood Swings: An EMI Music Sampler in the charity shop, buried amidst a pile of what largely looked like the usual collection of music magazine freebies. Actually I had been looking for it for some years and it was one of those quietly electrifying moments which makes the whole used music junkie endeavour worthwhile. As usual, these things always surface when you're NOT specifically looking for them. It was part of a 3 CDs for 99p deal and when I tell you that the other two I picked to make up the numbers were Shut It!: Music From The Sweeney and the superb Hed Kandi Back To Love 3 2CD compilation of vintage 12-inch mixes (how often do you see the 12-inch mix of Shannon's "Let The Music Play" on CD, rather than the inapt and inept 3:32 edit which gets lumped onto every compilation ever? Plus Dan Hartman's "Vertigo/Relight My Fire" in its entire nine-and-a-half minute glory plus half-forgotten glories like KC Flight's "Planet E"?) then you'll recognise that it was one of those magical days. Amazed that no one wanted any of these but there you go.




I knew of The Mood Swings because a friend of mine in The Music Industry has had a copy for some time and I quietly grrrr'ed every time he played it. It came out in 2000 and is so obscure that this is probably the first mention it'll get on Google. Unbelievable because it's a fantastic compilation; all (or largely) instrumental and clearly intended only for industry use and circulation - it was a limited edition and several tracks, including the one under consideration today, bear a dubious question mark about copyright ownership on the sleeve credits. It starts off with the Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Firecracker" (what an opener in this Bonfire season!) and then goes all over the place, checking in at familiar stops ("Nut Rocker," "Hit And Miss") before diverting into less expected sideroads (fairly unknown tracks by Les Paul and Sandy Nelson, things like Helmut Zacharias' '64 Olympics theme "Tokyo Melody") and finally, and beautifully, moving into Warpland with tracks from Plone, Boards of Canada, Jimi Tenor and others, settling perfectly with Nightmares on Wax's "Les Nuits" as a closer.




It's a brilliant anthology and this track in particular - track 2 - is totally unavailable on CD. One of those meat-and-spuds R&B tunes that seemingly everyone and their dog covered - King Curtis recorded the original version - this reading has an extra, rather frightening spark to its strut. These days Mike Cotton is better known as a stalwart of the UK trad jazz scene but for a period in the sixties his band went into R&B mode and became reliable backers of many visiting American soul stars. This version of "Soul Serenade" - in its King Curtis manifestation, already a huge floorfiller on the nascent Northern Soul scene - was recorded specifically for use as the theme tune to Mike Raven's pioneering Radio 1 R&B show which ran throughout the late sixties and very early seventies. Mike Raven - now there was a life, or several lives compressed into one. Tall, saturnine and lightly bearded, he came across as a slightly unsettling missing link between Peter Wyngarde and Charlie Gillett. But he lived; wartime Army officer, ballet dancer, photographer, explorer, actor and then - well into his mid-forties - a DJ, and a hugely influential one at that. And after that he went back to acting (in Hammer and Amicus horror films) before spending the last quarter-century or so of his life as a farmer and acclaimed sculptor. I very much doubt whether today's call centre probot drones with their Better Music Mixes could even begin to match that. His was an absolutely fascinating life and I draw your attention to this very fine tribute website. Really it ought to be an example to all of us. The whole process of life is about change and if you don't change your life regularly it's not worth having.


But "Soul Serenade." That lovely, winking come-into-the-parlour five-note carillon of organ and bass guitar before erupting into a lusty, high-pitched brass shuffle. Superb guitar solo - from, I believe, Micky Moody, later of Whitesnake - and a fevered Hammand solo where you can actually hear the keys rattling like St Peter's impatient bouncer - and then a hysterical, volcanic and totally unexpected (if extremely abrupt) coda. Simultaneously brutalist and welcoming, and worth grabbing whenever and wherever you see it.
(UPDATE: No sooner had I posted this yesterday than I saw in the paper that Luther Dixon, co-writer of "Soul Serenade," had died. RIP big man indeed.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

OBSERVATIONS ON MUSIC MONTHLIES


I can't say I'm bereft by the loss of the Observer Music Monthly. Obviously I'm not going to gloat about anyone losing their job either but who can say they didn't see it coming? It fell between every conceivable stool; earnest but not mischievous, po-faced (especially when it tried to be funny), too much time wasted trying to be "fair" and not upsetting the artists/PR companies/other assorted backslappers, and frequently (as with this month's chief feature) coming on like your grandad doing the Mashed Potato to deadmau5 when striving manfully to be With It. I mean, the first wave of Brit Pop was Ivor Novello and Noel Coward wunnit (cue howls of protest from the Marie Lloyd Appreciation Society). I wouldn't have minded reading a feature on either or both of those two. Or indeed writing one. It's a bit of a bore when I look for something interesting to read about X or Y and end up having to write it myself. Happens a lot.
But I stopped taking the Observer ages ago, thanks to its continued rightward drift, only ever skimmed OMM online, and I guess many others came to the same conclusion. And it was very quick to skim. It really was tedious; the print equivalent of Later with Jools H, worthy in the dullest manifestation of worthiness anyone could conceive. Not sexy or verbose or provocative other than provoking the usual yawn when one opened up its pages and saw yet again that tired old claque still in place - Sawyer, Morley, you name them, I'll blame them, dead thoughts leaking from dried pens - instead of exciting, new, young writers who actually have a hunger for music and aren't afraid to tell the truth. Or at least do some entertaining encomiums and slag-offs.
So what's the solution? It's no use looking to the other, non-newspaper connected monthlies, except for five minutes apiece in Sainsbury's. If you're alive you can forget about going on the cover of Uncut for a start. But Q and Mojo and their still surprisingly numerous imitators are no better; stillborn medium-form nostalgia or sarky soundbites about "new" acts, and, as always, actual critical commentary reduced to the barest of minimums. How soon before they cut down from the current 80-word limit to tracklistings and emoticons?
OK, the way things are now it's a no-win situation. "All music writing now is free. Deal with it," some will say, and not without justification. So the print monthlies and the broadsheet music sections are backed into a corner; because they don't have "fuck you" money they have to please the majority of their demographic and their advertisers and that means not offending, toeing the line, playing safe, knowing which side your bread's buttered. However I refuse to believe that there isn't still a market for a literate and entertaining regular print music magazine. One that will attract and startle. One that will not convey the past to the garbage heap but will not live in the past either. One that treats its readers as intelligent, astute, independently-minded grown-ups rather than one-year-old babies from Burma (copyright: Danny Baker) who need everything spelled out to them as though Google or brains didn't exist. One that's colourful but not superficial. One that's intense but not closed off (cf. The Wire). One where Zizek and N-Dubz can happily coexist, one whose writing will stimulate and inspire the next generation of music writers. And, most importantly, one which will employ the current generation of provocative and original music writers rather than the same old withered hacks and/or their mates. I'm working on a business proposal now.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

DARKSTAR: Aidy's Girl's A Computer


I recently bought the 5 Years Of Hyperdub compilation on CD. I know - I can already hear the rude laughter ricocheting from Dalston Kingsland. If only I'd been there at Wonky Warehouse Records in Newham at 2:48 pm on a cold Wednesday afternoon in March 2006 I could have snapped up some limited edition etched 10-inches. Worse, I bought it on the basis of an article I read in the Guardian. Pathetic, isn't it? MC Scavenger, waits for everyone else to do the donkey work then just strolls into HMV like a middle class plantation owner. Who the hell does he think he is?

Now I know that there is some form about all this 'nuum business and that there's been some right royal sparring going on. It's like 2004 all over again. I've been happy to keep well clear of it, mainly because nobody seems to have come up with a ready definition of what "hardcore continuum" means. There have been a lot of unready definitions for sure but the slugging matches have been great fun to watch (never mind dull old Melanie Phillips, get Melissa Bradshaw and K-Punk and Dan Hancox and Alex SBA and all the rest of the combatants on The Moral Maze! Watch the ratings shoot up!). Furthermore, and confusingly, although Dan's piece is exactly the sort of article this simpleton wanted, it wriggles out of the nuum dilemma entirely by stating that the movement epitomised by Hyperdub's records is "so new that it has yet to take a street name." Maybe all those confused Clapton and Waits fans would have become even more befuddled and sped off to the Independent. Even so, the comparisons to Scriabin and the exceptionally New Pop French philosophy kick - ah, that pesky New Pop, it just won't go away, will it? - are bang on and Kode9 himself comes up with this very handy pocket definition (trust a Glaswegian to get to the point!). I totally get it.

Reeling from that rarest of things - a music article in the Guardian that's actually of some practical use - made me ponder a bit more. Mainly the fact that the main reason why it's been hard for me to get my head around the whole nuum business is that it's been so inadequately explained. You see, there are two ways for the punter to go. One type of punter reads apparently complex, multifocal articles and wonders: "hmm, I wish the writer had explained it a little better." The other type reads the same articles and mourns: "oh, I wish I was cleverer so I could understand what the writer was saying." I'm definitely in the first category. Given that I went to grammar school and Oxford and once wrote a detailed 6500-word essay on Finnegan's Wake it therefore stands to reason that if I can't grasp something it's probably the fault of the writer rather than me. If I'm interested in something I want it explained to me in simple (never to be confused with simplistic) terms. Of everyone who's had a go K-Punk relates to me most because he has demonstrated evidence of listening to the key records and making or at any rate discerning useful connections, both philosophically and sociopolitically, although Melissa Bradshaw has also put in her highly entertaining, splenetic guinea's worth. Doesn't get me a whole lot closer to assimilating and understanding the thing as a "movement," however, especially since much of the movement, rhythmically and otherwise, on the key records seem furtive, restrained, crepuscular, skirting around the boards of foment like the nocturnal urban rambler who shrinks himself against a hidden wall until the gang has passed and the streets once more know silence.

Then again I'm someone who reckons that the minimalist (in volume if not intent) warping of perspectives and harmonics has also worked when maximalised in a pop context. Let's get something straight now. Anyone who doesn't get "Bonkers" shouldn't be writing about pop in 2009. Should actually give up listening to pop, let alone write about it. Back to your Editors CDs, Grandad. It's the same as it was with "Jack Your Body" and "Pump Up The Volume" in 1987 - the goalposts have been shaken out of their roots and a lot of people have been caught short or caught out.

(Was there the same kind of maximalism in 1987 pop? Perhaps from the rap and PWL perspective, but it's remarkable how both "Jack" and the original mix of "Pump" carried that same furtive mist of scurrying paws within their rhythmic templates. Nevertheless "Bonkers" represents a culture shift and not a Shoreditch surrender.)

But enough of the rambling. "Aidy's Girl's A Computer" is great and moving. It tentatively pops into the lower left hand corner of our eyesight with a few plaintive bleeps and then the beat - a familiar 1995 sort of beat - kind of wanders in. There's a processed voice saying something which sounds like "feeling" and which provides a poignant harmonic bent to the quietly bustling rhythms of the song itself. But then the beat divides itself, absents itself for stretches, and the central body of the song quivers like a soon-to-be-discovered earthworm. The abandoned PacMan searches throughout the song's pores for this "feeling," can't quite grasp its essence. Eventually there is a long drone, sustained like the most perfect of damaged sunrises, and at the end the same (?) voice utters: "Good morning." Pure Kraftwerk, pure magic, and this is just one of the marvellously versatile factors which go into this collection of tracks and make the last five years seem - not different, perhaps, historically, but crucially augmented. The spaces are perhaps more in keeping with the heritage of Oval - picture this lone waster proclaiming back in the day that 94 Diskont was the future, or at any rate one of the most viable futures, when everyone else was salivating over Menswear and Gallon Drunk - than JA dub techniques, but as with the latter it is left for the listener to fill in the spaces; as Mingus said of both Elvin Jones and Dannie Richmond, the beats never go anywhere near the beat, and are therefore more mobile and perhaps more tactile. Beautiful and one of the year's key tracks, whatever anyone chooses to call it.

RIGHT PROPER CRITICISM AT LAST!

Don't know how long this is going to stay up, given that the paper is shutting down next week, but it's amazing how critics somehow manage finally to let go when they know their job's coming to an end. I previously never thought Paul Connolly anything more than a Somerfield Petridish but his remarks on the new Leona are a masterclass in the noble art of considered invective and makes me feel more at ease about the far distant time when I'll have to write about this impeccably dismal album. It's as if the real Paul Connolly has burst out and run a glorious lap of slag-off honour. Almost a Peter Finch in Network moment really. More of this in general please and MUCH less of the recycled press release/bland yea-saying. You might actually get more readers.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

PROCOL HARUM: Pandora's Box



Caught this on the radio the other night. Lena hadn’t heard it before and was blown away by it. It’s a curious record to be sure, and an even curiouser single to go Top 20 (only just) in 1975. While the video squeals “1975!” nothing in this record sounds remotely like anything happening in 1975, not even the 1975 of “I’m Not In Love” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I have it on one of those old school no-frills double compilations called The Collection which I bought for about 10p donkey’s years ago. I miss those compilations of old; I’ve been going through a number of them for TPL of late – the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Hollies, the Seekers; somebody in EMI marketing knew what the time was in 1968 – and all you got were track listings, a couple of photos, and that was it. No liner notes, scholarly or otherwise; the artists were a mystery and as the listener it was up to you to formulate a story out of their music if you didn’t know them already. I don’t have its parent album since Procol’s Ninth was a bit of a stinker, though I thoroughly recommend going out and getting their first four albums plus the live album they did with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra plus 1974’s Exotic Birds And Fruit which may well be their masterpiece. Grand Hotel from 1973 isn’t bad either if you’ve never heard John Cale’s Paris 1919.

Procol were definitely in a bit of a quandary by 1975 and it’s unsurprising that Gary Brooker blew the whistle a couple of years later; Leiber and Stoller had been drafted in to produce Procol’s Ninth and it seems to have been a botched back-to-basics type move with a couple of odd cover versions (tackling “Eight Days A Week” was, to put it mildly, misguided). Moreover, “Pandora’s Box,” the album’s only decent track, seems to have been laid down much earlier and rescued from the shelf.

It really is a strange piece of work. Keith Reid’s free association historical namechecks, ranging from Handel to Morse, get their typical airing, and there is the overall “Salty Dog” feeling of being marooned in the middle of nowhere, groping to find treasure, or revelation, in strange lands, as evinced by the Paul Bowles-like “marble staircased plain” which materialises so ghostily at the end of each verse (there isn’t really a chorus). The song stops and starts and there are elements of both 1969 and 1981 at work; the Harrison-esque Leslie cabinet guitar solo, the general still-can’t-find-our-way-home aura of fuggy mystique, but also a serene cleanliness in the pronounced marimba strikes, the petrol station synthesisers (Korg string?), the peculiarly cheery flute solo and Spanish main-brushing slow samba beat, as though the mystery is cleaning itself up clinically in preparation for an airily brushed future. And that weird, where-did-my-hands-go guitar delay throb which lurks as though wanting to blow the song up. Ah, the title's forewarning of the selfish, unthinking Westerner come to fuck up the East with their stupid sixteenth century ambitions.

Its principal factor, though, is Brooker’s voice – this is a less clearcut journey through jazzy towpaths than Traffic’s, though Brooker and Winwood do tend to get bracketed together as countrified white soul psychouts. At least I do, and maybe Kate Bush does too, given Brooker’s key contributions to her (comparatively) recent albums. But look at him on the video clip, and swim in his strangely upturned eyebrow of “plain” – am I the only one considering the subtle influence of Bill Fay?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

WARM BRANDY


I'm curious enough to want to check this out. There's a copy downstairs in the Oxfam branch where Lena works and I'll put in a fair bid.


UPDATE: Got it for £1.99. Extremely fair, I must say. Will report back later.

YOU AIN'T GONNA KNOW ME 'COS YOU THINK YOU KNOW ME

Rosie's a scream, in'she? I was away on holiday a little while ago and she posted this presumably thinking I wasn't going to find it when I came back. Actually she's got me bang to rights. Historians, eh? What do they know? If you weren't there you'll never understand and you should shut up. It's the truth for sure. That Hilary Mantel, for instance. What does she know about Thomas Cromwell and sixteenth century Britain? She's only fifty-seven! She should hand back the money to Booker and send her CBE back to the Palace straightaway. Wouldn't trust her with a tithed pole.

Really I'm more of a tiresome middle-aged egotist. I'll deal with old when/if I get there (if the propsect of "old" incorporates the necessity to write about albums by Kasabian and White Lies, though, I might have to rethink that concept). I've never hacked for the NME though. I did do two years freelancing on Uncut and then they got fed up with me and stopped ringing me. Quite right too. I wouldn't have hired me back in the 2004 day. Which makes me more than grateful to the people who did. But that's another story.

Still, I do feel the need to correct a few assumptions which are still floating around whatever is left of this here quarter of the music blogosphere (does anyone still use that term without rue or irony?). Only a few, mind. I'm only going to address this topic once and then it's back to normal business. I'm aware that some people still perceive me as a "bloated-egoed (sic) nobody" and "wannabe journalist." A shyster. A flip-flopping bandwagon jumper. A stuck record (there he goes again, punctum this, punctum that). A lost case. A bullshit merchant. An unalloyed egocratic wreck. An obsessive trainspotter. A bitter old carcass of a man rotting away in penurious hell who missed his chance 25 years ago and has nothing better to do than have a go at Guardian music writers. A straightahead tl; dr crackpot. And that's just the readers who like me boom boom.

For those who need it clarifying, here's how I do on Popular. Again, pay attention because I will say this only once. I read what Tom has to say about each entry. Then I turn to my specially preprepared commentary (sorry to burst the spontaneity bubble but, some of you may be surprised to hear, I do have both a day job and a life and it does save a lot of time if I turn to one I made earlier), tweak it to take out anything overtly personal or anything about which I might have changed my mind since originally writing it, and then add anything that occurs to me in the course of retooling the entry. Then I post. Then I stand back and let everyone else get on with it. If anyone wants clarification of certain points or wishes to correct any historical or aesthetic inaccuracies of mine then fair enough and I'll respond if the discussion is relevant. But otherwise the comments boxes take their own course and I don't wade back in; certainly it is no longer my business to start or engage in pointless "arguments" which is precisely why I'm taking this onto the blog rather than filling up valuable debating space on Popular. My instinctive view is that most Popular readers sigh "tl;dr" to themselves when they see my ramblings and move on quickly around the inert mass. But again that's fair enough. I can't force people to read me. The important thing is that I said it and it works as an integral part of that particular community.

And, just to wrap things up, one final word to those who really have nothing better to do than carry on with the slurs, or have the habit of accusatorily dredging up things I said four or five years ago when my life and views were utterly different from what they are now: when it comes down to it, you don't know me, you have no idea about how I've lived my life, what I've done with it, what I've lived through, what I've learned or how I learned it. So think good and hard before you make assumptions.